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Before there was a Chinese emperor, there was bok choy. First cultivated in the rich soils of the Yellow River Valley over 6,000 years ago—thousands of years before the founding of the first Chinese dynasty—bok choy is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. And while Chinese cooks have long appreciated its many virtues, it took Chinese immigrants to introduce it to kitchens in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. With its slightly mustardy bite, delicate pearl and jade color, and incredible flexibility and variety, this nutritional powerhouse will brighten any fall or winter soup, salad, or stir-fry.

1. Hello, my name is bok choy

Bok choy is a member of the Brassica rapa, or cabbage family. Its thick white base holds roughly a dozen stems that end in smooth, dark green leaves. Raw, it maintains its crisp texture, subtle piquancy, and stark white and green color. When cooked, its stems hold their shape and color, but its leaves wither and turn a deep emerald green, adding a punch of dramatic color to any dish to which they’re added.

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The name “bok choy” derives from the Cantonese word for “white vegetable.” In English, you may come across a number of transliterations and spellings from bak choi to pak choi and pak choy to simply Chinese white cabbage. Adding to the confusion, is the many varieties in which it comes. In Europe and North America, the most common types include the more diminutive, white-stemmed, dwarf or baby bok choy, and the green-stemmed, Shanghai bok choy. These “babies” of the bok choy family maintain their small size either because they were harvested early, before they could reach maturity, or in the case of the Shanghai variety, because they belong to a small breed. The more petite varieties tend to have a milder flavor than their more robust, mature counterparts. The white-stemmed, larger varieties are usually labeled simply “bok choy” and have a stronger, more minerally flavor.

When it comes to nutrition, bok choy practically walks on water. Packed into its white-and-green leaves is a dense array of nutrients. It is as rich in vitamins, especially vitamins C, K, A, E, and B6 as it is in minerals, including calcium, manganese, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Together these elements help build up the body’s immune system, lower blood pressure, increase bone strength, and possibly reduce the risk of cancer. Because it is very fibrous, bok choy also aids in digestion. Plus, it’s very low in calories—so don’t worry about it impacting your waistline.

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2. When (and how) to buy bok choy

Bok choy is a relatively hearty plant. It can withstand light frosts and slight dips in temperature, making it an ideal fall and winter vegetable. Although when it is harvested depends on the variety, most bok choy is harvested between the late summer and early fall. Not surprisingly, the bulk of it is grown in China. But recently farmers in North America and Europe have also begun to cultivate it. This means that you do not have to depend on the vagaries of weather or long-distance transportation and can enjoy it almost year-round.

When it comes to selecting bok choy, follow your instincts. If you want to use the baby or dwarf varieties, look for small, tender heads. If going for the larger ones, check the stem and leaves for signs of early wilting like limp stems or droopy leaves.

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3. How to prepare bok choy

Bok choy is a delightfully accommodating vegetable. It adds a bit of crunch and a subtle flavor to a range of cold and hot dishes. How you wash and prepare it depends on the variety and on the recipe, of course, but some general tips apply.

Because it grows close to the soil, dirt tends to cling to the base of the stems. For smaller varieties, keep the base intact. Rinse the entire plant under running water or in a bowl of water, while looking for and eliminating any lingering traces of dirt. For larger varieties, start by cutting off the dense base, then remove the individual stalks. From there you can either rinse them under running water or wash them in a bowl of water.

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If you’re going for something quick and fresh, try it raw. In this case, baby bok choy varieties work best. While eating it raw has its merits, the flavor of bok choy really comes alive when cooked. Introducing the element of heat allows you to get a bit more experimental, too. If you’re feeling a bit risk averse or are short on time, simply add either baby or mature varieties to your soups or stir-fries towards the end of cooking. It will lend some textural variety and color without too much competition in terms of flavor. You can also do like Korean cooks have been doing since the 17th century, when the Portuguese introduced chili peppers to their diet, and pickle or ferment it along with a host of spices and other vegetables.

But if you’re feeling a bit bold, give bok choy a chance on its own. Grilled, boiled, fried or steamed, it goes well with a broad range of flavors and ingredients: ginger, lemon grass, lemon or lime juice; peanut, hoisin, black bean or soy sauce; brown rice vinegar, sesame or olive oil; sesame seeds, garlic, crushed red pepper, water chestnuts. Baby bok choy can be boiled whole, then seasoned afterwards, or it can be quartered or chopped lengthwise in half, then grilled. For larger varieties, it’s best to first separate the stems from the leaves, since the thick stems take longer to cook.

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4. What to make next?

All week long, we’ll be featuring new bok choy recipes. Check back to see what's new, then try one for yourself! Here's where to start:

Colorful Asian-inspired noodles

Colorful Asian-inspired noodles

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Taiwanese pork belly over rice

Taiwanese pork belly over rice

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Blanched bok choy with shiitake mushrooms

Blanched bok choy with shiitake mushrooms

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More delicious ideas for you